26 August 2011

Pictures at an Exhibition (展覧会の絵, 1966)



In 1967 Osamu Tezuka picked up his second Noburo Ofuji Award for his animation Pictures at an Exhibition (展覧会の絵, 1966). Among other domestic honours, this 39-minute film (33 minutes in its current cut) also picked up the award for Best Animated Film at the Asia Pacific Film Festival that year.

The film is a modern interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874), a suite in ten movements composed for the piano. The music was inspired by an exhibition of the works of Mussorgsky’s late friend Viktor Hartmann. The first movement is the famous Promenade, which represents the visitor walking around the exhibition. This is followed by various movements that are meant to either create the picture in the mind’s eye or at the very least capture the mood of the picture. Each movement is interspersed with a reprise of the Promenade theme in order to depict the visitor moving on to the next picture.

Tezuka commissioned the composer Isao Tomita to arrange Mussorgsky’s composition for the orchestral accompaniment to the animation. The arrangement was performed by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. The Geneon DVD of the animation adds the original 1966 ending of the film as a 3 minute extra. It shows the orchestra performing the piece before segueing into the credits.

In the accompanying information, written by Masahiro Katayama, he describes Pictures at an Exhibition as the “antithesis of Mushi Pro’s TV animation.” Katayama feels that the film demonstrates the “journalistic eye of Tezuka throughout.” The film was, like Tezuka’s later film Legend of the Forest (1987), made as a kind of homage to Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

The film opens with the camera gracefully tracking up to the doors of a Western-style museum (post a comment if you recognize the building). Once inside, the film switches to animation as the camera pans along a wall of portraits in a nod to Mussorgsky’s original theme. However, the pictures are not those of Viktor Hartmann (which would be actually impossible as not all of them survived), but modern illustrations of people and character types that would have been easily recognizable to audiences in the late 1960s. Many of them: Shakespeare, William Tell, Sigmund Freud, the Beatles are still recognizable to us today. Some, like the Beatnik, are now a bit dated. Following the musical cues of the Promenade, the camera pans along at an irregular pace and pauses at various portraits. All 10 portraits are given an animated interpretation, followed by an extended “Allegorical Conclusion”.

In the English opening credits – which are replete with errors including the odd spelling of Tezuka’s name as Osam Tezka (unless this is an inside joke which explains his son’s unusual choice of Romanization of the family name) – explain that “This picture is constituted of the conventionalities of various heroes today.” My own interpretation of each “portrait” is that they are meant to be tongue-in-cheek satires of important figures in society. Here is a summary of each “portrait.”

Journalist


I actually think that the English title of this section is inaccurate. The old, spider-like, pipe-smoking negative stereotype that is depicted is really more of a media magnate / newspaper publisher along the lines of figures like Rupert Murdoch and William Randolph Hurst. There really are no positive attributions given to this dictatorial figure. He is shown as being corrupt, publicity seeking, self-serving, and power-hungry. All in all the portrait leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Gardener of the artificial landscape


An insect is flying through a world of skyscrapers. He is exhausted from his long journey and searches out water and flowers in order to find some nourishment. Each flower he encounters turns out to be fake. The garden of fake flowers is tended to by a large man with an entourage of fans who dusts and perfumes the flower and cuts out any real ones and disposes of them. When the gardener finds the bug, he throws him away as well, but his fate is left ambiguous. Although the title card on the Geneon DVD suggested that this film was a kind of homage to Fantasia, the second portrait reminded me much more of the Fleischer BrothersMr. Bug Goes to Town (Dave Fleischer, 1941). Not only does Tezuka’s bug resemble Hoppity the Grasshopper, the theme is also similar: nature (in the form of insects) being threatened by modernity (the city).

Mr. Bug Goes to Town / Disney
Order Mr. Bug Goes to Town (EN/JP) from Studio Ghibli

Cosmetic Surgeon


This is one of the more amusing portraits in Pictures at an Exhibition – and one which uses a more pared down sketch style animation on a watercolour background. In this scenario, Tezuka mocks the profession of cosmestic surgeon by showing a number of over-the-top techniques being performed on various people. One person is being expanded with air, another is put through a giant pencil sharpener, yet another is treated with a hammer in the backside. The most amusing moment comes in the form of a close up on the surgeon’s face when it is distorted by a sneeze.

Big Factory Proprietor


This portrait seemed heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Tezuka wrote a manga called Metropolis loosely inspired by the film in 1949 – which was of course adapted into an anime by Rintaro in 2001. Like the portrait of the “Journalist” the factory boss is depicted as a dictatorial, greedy, soulless creature. Eventually the whole factory, including the big boss himself, are taken over by machines.

Beatnik


Although the portrait on the wall looks like a beatnik, the animation is of dancing chicks who seem to be recreating one of the Sharks vs. Jets dance numbers from West Side Story (Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise, 1961). This is easily my favourite sequence in the animation because it is so delightful. The use of chicks is a direct reference to the Mussorgsky score because this suite is known as “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.” The original watercolour by Harmann was amusingly surreal and can be seen here

Boxer

The boxer in this portrait is an elephant with a boxing glove on his trunk. The suggestion is that boxers, like circus animals, are being exploited by their managers for financial gain. It is a pessimistic portrayal in a similar vein to  the first and second portraits.

TV Talent

Like the “Cosmetic Surgeon” portrait, this portrait uses a sketching animation style. This time black on a coloured background. The TV Talent is an attractive woman cruising about in an expensive car while people at the TV studio panic because she is late for the shoot. The TV Talent carelessly runs over staff on her way into the building and the world of television is literally shown to be world in which people tear each other apart.

Zen Priest

This portrait suggests that Osamu Tezuka questioned the sincerity of practitioners of Zen Buddhism. A grumpy looking Zen priest sits immobile in this portrait. Neither earthquake, nor rain and storm, rocks falling from the sky, nor fire can move him. The screen fades to black, but then returns to the Zen priest, catching him yawning and stretching and he immediately goes back to his meditative pose as if he had never left it.

Soldiers


The use of cutouts and abstract shapes in this “picture” are quite cleverly done. It depicts a negative stereotype of soldiers and the brutality of war. The soldiers appeared to be American – in fact one looked African American – and in a combat situation. The film suggests that the soldiers have a lack of empathy for civilians and are only interested in their baser instincts. I know from having attended an exhibition in Tokyo in 2007 at the Showakan called Osamu Tezuka War Memories and Drawings that the war that Tezuka’s wartime experiences had a significant impact on both his outlook on life and his art. This vignette offers a very pessimistic view of the role of the soldier in times of war.  I have a feeling that the theme of this "picture" was strongly influenced by American military involvement in the Vietnam War, which was such a bone of contention at the time this animation was made.

Allegorical Conclusion
The conclusion of the film adapts the final movement “Great Gate of Kiev” quite literally. A procession of people, including many characters from the previous “pictures”, walk through a giant archway – which appeared more Greco-Roman than Russian to my eye but then I am no expert in architecture. I found the ending strangely unsatisfying, mainly because I didn't fully understand what Tezuka was trying to say with it. It seemed to suggest that the people were walking up to the “Pearly Gates” of heaven, but for what purpose I cannot say with any certainty.  There seemed to be a message about supporting others and togetherness, but it was a bit convoluted.

There are many who find Pictures at an Exhibition pessimistic and “weird” (see Hayao Miyazaki’s comments in Starting Point, p. 195), but I think it was Tezuka’s honest attempt to use animation in an original way. Most of the “pictures” are clearly meant to be read as satire – which is a rhetorical form renowned for rubbing people the wrong way. Although I found the “Allegorical Conclusion” a bit over the top in its use of allegory, it does however match the pomposity of Mussorgsky’s score. What Tezuka was trying to “say” with Pictures at an Exhibition is a matter of debate, but the quality of the animation is irrefutably high. It is an intriguing example of animation inspired by music.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2011

This review is part of Nishikata Film Review’s  2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.

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